Giraudon/Art Resource, NY

The souls of the righteous rest in the bosom of Abraham in this 12th-century French Bible illumination. After death, souls were believed to gather in a place called Sheol (in the Old Testament) or Hades (in the New Testament); Abraham’s bosom was a special compartment for the righteous in this afterworld. It is mentioned only once in the Bible, in a parable in Luke. According to Luke, at death a poor man named Lazarus was “carried away by angels to Abraham’s bosom” while a rich man who had received good things in life suffered torments in Hades (Luke 16:22–23). In more recent days, Elvis Presley and other performers have expressed their longing to be carried to this same place in the song “Bosom of Abraham.”

Abraham’s role as protector of the righteous may stem from his arguments with God over the fate of Sodom. When God warns Abraham that he is planning to destroy the city, Abraham begins to bargain: “What if there should be 50 righteous within the city; will you then wipe out the place?” (Genesis 18:25). In the end, God agrees not to destroy Sodom if 10 righteous souls can be found. Not one is discovered, however, so Sodom is destroyed.

Despite Abraham’s failure in this case, Muffs argues, the back-and-forth between God and his human representative is necessary: Without it, God’s hands are tied. He can’t act without his agent.